Methods of Midrash

How this genre gleans deep meaning from the Torah's text

Print this page Print this page

Midrash as an Agent of Both Tradition and Change

With its multiple generations of authors, transmitters, and scribes, even redacted collections of midrash tolerate a great deal of narrative contradiction. Disagreement over the correct reading of a verse, or at very least multiple interpretations, is the rule rather than an exception.

Midrash does not, however, have much tolerance at all for abstractions or ambiguities in the biblical text. Despite Rabbi Ishmael’s caution to leave an "imperfect" text alone rather than risk absurdity, at times outrageous midrashim are connected with even the most mundane biblical verses or passages.

Isaak Heinemann, one of the pioneering scholars of midrash over the past century, notes that midrash can be categorized in two modes: creative historiography and creative philology. The former refers primarily to the filling of gaps in narratives and answering questions of the meaning of particular episodes or characters. The latter describes the playful and intricate close reading of words, letters, and calligraphic flourishes--whereby every possibly unit of information is ripe for interpretation.

Midrash provided the ancient rabbis with more than a system of deep analysis and discussion of Torah. It was also the classic rabbinic mode for exploring new and challenging ideas, stories and visions--within the familiar language and narrative of Torah.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.